It’s a deliberately inflammatory article title, but as I age, I find myself getting more and more annoyed with the abundance of “Bad Shakespeare” out there. Exhibit A: a screen capture of a Google image search for “To Thine Own Self be True” necklaces.
Lots and lots of necklaces celebrating...Polonius?
The whole experience of thumbing through these catalogs is aesthetic gluttony. I’m appalled that I have gawked through the whole thing, and I imagine my mind’s eye looks like this wee dog:
Of course, it’s not esoteric. Shakespeare penned the phrase, in what is, by many, considered to be the pinnacle of his dramatic achievements: Hamlet. The sentiment in the words appeals to our modern sensibilities because it echoes much of the philosophy we associate with our age: a knowledge of self and science, an enlightenment, a cogito ergo sum, if you will.
Where, then, is the harm?
The phrase, unfortunately, seems a strange quote for edification for those of us familiar with its speaker, the dramatis persona Hamlet himself derides as “a tedious old fool.” Hamlet, after all, can force Polonius into parroting anything absurd he says:
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it's like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.
The Parroting Polonius (you'll nose him in a month)
In his brief stage life, Polonius is never true to himself. He is officious, meddlesome – even willing to risk his own daughter’s safety and sanity to stay in the good graces of Claudius and Gertrude. By the time Hamlet stabs Polonius in the queen’s chambers (which, now that I see that written down, seems like I’m playing medieval-by-way-of-Renaissance-Clue), we understand that Polonius is the least likely character to remain true to himself.
Excellent. No more Polonian pith.
On to uncover Old Hamlet's murder!
Intriguingly, people often quote another of Polonius’s aphorisms out of context: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Here we witness the aged courtier in his element, addressing the king and queen. The speech, in its entirety, runs:
My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .
before Gertrude can take no more and cuts him off with, “More matter, with less art.” Here again, while the phrase itself is pithy, it only remains so if one is unaware of the speaker or context.
There are far worse things than tacky catalogs and quoting Shakespeare out of context, to be sure. But for the sheer frequency of these misappropriations, Bad Shakespeare awards this use of the Bard’s matter without acknowledging the art in them: